Animals charmed their way into Bill Landau’s life. Watching his yellow tabby, I understand. Rufus’ ears perk and haunches bunch as he prepares to attack his prey, the noiselessly spinning wheels of my tape recorder. I want to take the fuzzball home with me. And that is exactly how Pet of the Week works. Landau photographs a stray for the Daily Sun, people fall in love and take that shelter animal home.
“I learned in photography school that children and pets have universal appeal,” said Landau. So when he and wife Peggy arrived in Flagstaff in 1979, he approached the newspaper with the Pet of the Week idea to drum up business. It worked. Wednesday’s circulation received a boost and so did Landau’s popularity. After a few years and children, the Landaus moved to Iowa to be near grandparents though their horizon remained in Flagstaff, stoked by yearly hiking trips.
Landau specialized in weddings for the next 20 years, chasing after 2000 brides before envisioning his semi-retirement. He made a good living, but with their children grown and gone, Peggy and Bill aimed their sights back on Flagstaff, planning to pick up where they had left off. “I’d do weddings on the weekends and hike during the week,” Landau said. He also volunteered to resurrect Pet of the Week.
That was six years ago, and during that time, Landau tried to quit pet photography a few times. Somewhere along the way though, his marketing ploy became a moral obligation. In fact, Dennis Pugh, who manages Coconino Humane Association said to Landau, “ ‘You quit, and we’re out of business.’ “
More than the featured animal benefits from Pet of the Week. When Wednesday’s photo of a belly-up pup in posies tugs on the heartstrings of animal lovers, they head over to the Humane Association. Often that dog has been adopted, but soon they are taken in by another precious, needy face. “Sometimes a dozen people come in from one picture,” Landau confirmed.
So, capturing that squirming, happy-to-see you pooch on film is worth it. The process takes an hour on Friday afternoon. “First, Peggy and I do the kennel walk,” Landau said. “We look for an animal that fits my idea. We bring props – say I have a big hat, I need a big dog.” He brainstorms ideas ahead of time. “I’ve used just about everything in my house, at least once.” He also pays attention to the kennel card, indicating the length of time the animal has spent there.
Bill and Peggy take the lucky animal outside for a break. “To get the crazy wiggles out,” Landau said. Then, they give the pooch or pus a treat, get to know each other and earn its trust. When they shoot outdoors, the couple doesn’t go far. “The secret is, we keep the leash on,” said Landau. “Then, we just photo-shop it out.” In the winter or bad weather, they utilize a tiny staff room. “I run the camera, and Peggy positions the animal. She grew up on an Iowa farm – she’s the animal wrangler. I couldn’t do it without her.”
Landau next tries to find the right crazy noise to make the animal respond. Howls and growls, whatever it takes, while the employees stand on the other side of the door laughing. Dogs, he discovered, like sharper sounds, and cats’ sensitive ears prefer softer ones, like the wheels of my tape recorder.
People often ask how Landau encourages the animals to sit still. “The answer is – they don’t sit still! I just shoot fast and often.” The process involves a lot of work and ingenuity, and it takes a personal toll. “I’m allergic to cats,” Landau said and laughed at the irony. “I take a pill every day, but it does get kind of bad – runny nose, watery eyes.”
And Landau is persistent. It took patience to get a pic of a hound wound round with ribbon. He said, “I consider most of what I do as teaching them a trick – repetitions, a treat and loving them up.” He doesn’t always use his great ideas right away and carried a Superman costume around for months until he found a superhero-sized dog.
Landau confessed, “I feel sorry for all of the black animals in the world. I hardly ever photograph them because their fur absorbs the light. There’s no reflection, only eyes and a tongue.” Despite this, he made a Halloween kitten glow one amber afternoon in a flutter of fiery leaves.
These icons and more comprise the first Pet of the Week Calendar 2008. The idea evolved from Landau’s cult following. Businesses collect their favorite photos on shop walls and others write letters, reminiscing about long-lost pets. The calendar brought friends out of the woodwork in appreciation and proceeds support Coconino Humane Association.
As for the dogs and cats, Landau said, “It’s confusing when a stranger takes them from the unfamiliar kennel to a tiny room with big umbrella lights, cameras and props. But they seem to understand what we’re trying to do for them. They let us help them.”
The Humane Association has taken in animals of all kinds including rats, guinea pigs and chickens. The strangest portrait Landau has done to date promoted a couple of white geese. At a loss, he shot them in profile, but not before, “I discovered the real meaning of loose as a goose. I always use washable backgrounds now,” he said.
Landau’s life has taken a new direction though he’ll keep his hand in photography. Running the Fourth Street Library offers hands-on experience while he completes a management degree, working towards Master of Library Science. As Storytime’s Mr. Bill, Landau finds similarities with selling a story to children and selling an animal through his photography. “I want to capture the essence, the personality – like he’s a good dog, he just needs a home – and make a happy ending.” NAMLM Gail G. Collins